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Friday 10 March 2023

Friday Fantasy: The Sunless Garden

The Sunless Garden
was originally published in 2004 as Dungeon Crawl Classics #10: The Sunless Garden. This meant that that it was first published for use with Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition, but in 2022, publisher Goodman Games took the original module—regarded as a classic of its time—and updated it to not one, but two different fantasy roleplaying games. One is for Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition as Fifth Edition Fantasy: The Sunless Garden, and the other is for Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game, as Dungeon Crawl Classics: The Sunless Garden, and both as Gen Con Exclusives at Gen Con 2022. However, the version for Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition would be subsequently released as Fifth Edition Fantasy #23: The Sunless Garden. However, it is the version for Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game that is being reviewed here. Dungeon Crawl Classics: The Sunless Garden is designed for a party of Fourth Level Player Characters and details a strange cave below which there is a lengthy dungeon. Whether run for the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game or Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, the scenario is easy to add to most ongoing campaigns and needs nothing more than a small village and a forest known for smugglers and Treants.

The Sunless Garden begins in or around the trading post of Garland’s Fork. Perhaps the Player Characters are passing through or visiting, or they have come to investigate reports of smugglers in the area, but when they discover to their horror that all of the inhabitants have been transformed into black trees! The trail of clues quickly leads to a strange cave, full of vegetation which seems to have been warped and mutated under a nauseous purple light. What has twisted the plants and fungi so, and caused the former guardians of the forest to turn dark and monstrous, if not outright evil?

The scenario consists of two levels—‘The Sunless Garden’ and ‘The Dark Garden’. It is entirely possible that the Player Characters will miss the entrance to the lower level, The Dark Garden, and even if they do, it will not necessarily affect the outcome of the scenario. The solution to the problem presented at the beginning of scenario—the villagers transformed into trees and the mutated vegetation—can be found in ‘The Sunless Garden’ and thus never need to go any further. However, this would be miss out on the contrast between the two levels and the contrast in tone between this scenario and others directly written for use with the for the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game rather having been adapted. ‘The Sunless Garden’ and ‘The Dark Garden’ vary in several ways. The upper level of ‘The Sunless Garden’ is wide open cavern that almost has the feel of a mini-wilderness area with its lush plots of vegetation, trees, fungi, and mulch, all of it twisted—such as the infamous exploding apples which go off if plucked from the tree—and all under the baleful purple light. In addition, there are several side locations off the main cavern, mostly worked areas in contrast to the main cave, and all populated in intelligent fashion with plenty of detail for the Judge to describe to her players.

Once they discover its entrance, what the Player Characters find below in ‘The Dark Garden’ is much more of a traditional dungeon. It has long, worked corridors, traps, stairs going up and down, mostly empty storage rooms, and so on. Progress is mostly linear through the dungeon, especially through its later parts. There are some fantastic encounters on the lower level, such as with a Sea Hag—washed in via the level’s big trap—who waits manacled to a wall, waiting to be rescued, but ready to strike, and a handful of delightful locations like the smuggler chief’s secret sewing room and display room, the latter including a giant copper piece a la the penny in the Batcave. There are some fantastic treasures to found too. Some are mundane, but many are incredibly bulky and difficult to transport. There is the possibility here of the Player Characters surviving the dungeon with a lot of money if they carry it off. The magical treasures are delightfully inventive, such as a Ring of Dryness, which prevents the wearer from getting wet at all, including sweat. Which means that the wearer pants heavily to help regulate his body’s temperature!

The other contrast to The Sunless Garden is between its editions. The Dungeon Crawl Classics line has always harked back to an earlier age of adventure and dungeon design, indeed that was its selling point when Dungeon Crawl Classics #1: Idylls of the Rat King was published in 2004. Yet the original style of the Dungeon Crawl Classics line was to emulate the style, look, and feel of the modules for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition, right down to the shade of blue used for the maps. This is not something that modules for the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game aim for, having their own distinctive look and feel—especially in the isometric perspective of their maps and the taking of inspiration from Appendix N of the Dungeon Master’s Guide. As a consequence, Dungeon Crawl Classics: The Sunless Garden does not feel like a scenario for the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game, or rather, one half does and one half does not. The upper half of ‘The Sunless Garden’ does feel like a classic Dungeon Crawl Classics, darker, twisted, and murkier, but the lower half of ‘The Dark Garden’ does not. It is bigger, emptier, and not strongly connected to the cavern above. Part of the issue is the lack of motivation in the scenario for the Player Characters to proceed further into the dungeon if they have cleared the cavern. Here a good Judge should be able to add motivation, perhaps connected to the band of smugglers mentioned at the beginning of the scenario.

Physically, Dungeon Crawl Classics: The Sunless Garden is presented in the classic style of the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game. Thus, artwork is decent, the maps good, and the writing clear. However, it does need an edit in places and feels slightly rushed.

Dungeon Crawl Classics: The Sunless Garden is an adaptation of an earlier module and it shows. The adaptation does not feel as smooth as it could have been and is better in the first half than the second half. Consequently, the scenario will need some input from the Judge to make ‘The Dark Garden’ work as well as ‘The Sunless Garden’ does.

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